Urinary tract infections (UTIs) rank among the most common of all bacterial infections, particularly among women. Recognizing the first symptoms enables you to seek early treatment and reduces your risk of possible complications.
What Is a UTI?
- Kidneys: organs that filter waste and excess water from your blood and produce urine
- Ureters: tubes that carry urine from the kidneys to your bladder
- Bladder: hollow organ that holds your urine
- Urethra: tube through which urine passes from your bladder as you urinate
- Prostate (in men): the reproductive system gland that surrounds the urethra below the bladder
Many people refer to a UTI as a bladder infection, but UTI is a more accurate term because the infection often involves multiple parts of the urinary tract.
Cause and Types of UTIs
A UTI develops when bacteria from outside your body make their way up the urethra into the urinary tract and set up shop, multiplying and wreaking havoc due to associated inflammation.
Women are far more likely to develop a UTI compared to men due to a shorter urethra. As such, bacteria have less distance to travel to infect the urinary tract.
UTIs are divided into two types — lower and upper. Most UTIs remain limited to the lower urinary tract, meaning the urethra, bladder and/or prostate in men. Less commonly, the infection spreads into the upper urinary system, meaning the ureters and possibly one or both kidneys.
Initial UTI Symptoms
The initial symptoms of a UTI are typically the same for women and men and occur due to inflammation of the lower urinary tract caused by the infection. These include:
1. Painful Urination
Burning pain when you urinate is usually the first symptom that occurs with a UTI. The pain can be very intense and usually persists for several minutes after you empty your bladder before gradually subsiding.
Young children who don't yet have the ability to describe this symptom in words might simply cry and/or grasp their private area when they urinate.
2. Urinary Urgency
When you have a UTI, your ability to "hold it" when you experience the urge to urinate suddenly drops off. This symptom — known medically as urinary urgency — can leave you frantically searching for the nearest bathroom when the urge to go strikes.
In children who have previously mastered potty training, a UTI can cause them to suddenly start having daytime accidents or nighttime bed-wetting.
3. Urinary Frequency
Urinary frequency often goes hand in hand with urinary urgency when you have a UTI. This means that you experience the urge to urinate far more frequently than usual.
Normally, you don't experience the urge to urinate until your bladder is approaching fullness. But when you have a UTI, the infection-related irritation makes you feel like you have to go even when there's very little urine in your bladder. As a result, you pass only small amounts of urine at each of your many trips to the restroom.
Urinary frequency is hard to detect in a little one who's still in diapers, but it is relatively easy to pick up in potty-trained children.
Other UTI Signs and Symptoms
In addition to burning and urinary urgency and frequency, you might experience other signs and symptoms with a UTI, including:
- Foul or ammonia-like urine odor
- Cloudy and/or pinkish urine
- Pain in your lower abdomen or pelvic area, usually near your pubic bone
- Low-grade fever (lower than 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit)
Not everyone develops these additional signs and symptoms, so you might experience only some of them (or, possibly, none).
Kidney Infection Signs and Symptoms
If the infection spreads your kidneys (a condition called pyelonephritis, additional signs and symptoms usually develop. These include:
- Fever higher than 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit, possibly with chills and/or shivering
- Pain in your back and/or side, possibly radiating into your groin area
- Nausea, with or without vomiting
- General feeling of being sick
Kidney infection signs and symptoms usually develop along with or shortly after those previously discussed. Rarely, however, kidney infection signs and symptoms are the initial indicators of a UTI.
When to See a Doctor
Contact your doctor as soon as possible if you experience symptoms of a possible UTI. In some cases, your doctor might prescribe an antibiotic after a telephone conversation to evaluate your symptoms. In other cases, an office visit is recommended for urine testing and to evaluate you for other possible causes of your symptoms.
Seek immediate medical attention if you experience signs or symptoms that could indicate a UTI involving your kidneys. This is especially important for pregnant women, young children and people with existing medical problems that increase the risk for UTI-related complications, including those with diabetes, kidney disease, a urinary tract abnormality or a weak immune system.
In some cases, people with pyelonephritis require in-patient hospital care for a few days to monitor the infection and watch for complications, such as spread of the infection to the bloodstream or formation of a kidney abscess (a collection of bacteria and pus in the kidney).
- Microbiology Spectrum: Clinical Presentations and Epidemiology of Urinary Tract Infections
- Merck Manual Professional Version: Bacterial Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)
- Clinical Infectious Diseases: International Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Treatment of Acute Uncomplicated Cystitis and Pyelonephritis in Women: A 2010 Update by the Infectious Diseases Society of America and the European Society for Microbiology and Infectious Diseases
- McMaster Pathophysiology Review: Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)
- Nature Reviews Microbiology: Urinary Tract Infections: Epidemiology, Mechanisms of Infection and Treatment Options
- Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research: Acute Pyelonephritis - Correlation of Clinical Parameter with Radiological Imaging Abnormalities